Bite size chunks – managing your writing

On my last post I had just handed in my extended research proposal to the School board and ethics committee, and was nervously awaiting the results.

Proposal accepted!

Thankfully, I don’t have to go back to square one just yet, as they were happy with my work so far and even gave me some lovely feedback about the interesting topic and reading I had done so far. Woohoo!!

Anyhow, following this I struggled to figure out where to go next, and kept coming back to my proposal document and bleakly staring at the words, panicking that I couldn’t figure out where to slot in my next reading notes or start a brand new section. Obviously, this is a totally fruitless way to waste vast swathes of time, and my productivity hit a bit of a lull.

Group inspiration

Luckily, yesterday I was on a half day part-time PhD support group organised for the University, and it has really given me the kick-start I needed. I would definitely advise getting involved in these kind of groups and networks as early as possible, as they are a great way to collaborate with other new researchers and try out ideas with each other.

Be gone writer’s block!

As I was explaining the rut I was in and my frustration, another PhD student and lecturer, Jean, told me about the way she writes and how it works for her, and it was like a switch had been flicked in my head and banished my writers block! Jean explained that, to make things more manageable, very early on in her writing she made separate documents for each section of her thesis-to-be. Then, when reading through her articles and book chapters, she would make a note of which section they were relevant to, and add a few notes to that document, and so on.

Now, I know it sounds obvious when written down like this, but when you are at home on your own staring at a document for what feels like the billionth time, logical answers aren’t always forthcoming, so it really was a breakthrough to talk this through with Jean.

Choosing your sections

Feeling super motivated, I scooted home after work and got straight on with separating out my sections and updating them with some recent reading. For now, my structure looks like this:

  • Introduction (covers a summary, research questions and aims and timeline)
  • Context (focuses on recent changes in funding and research landscapes, including assessment)
  • Social impact – definitions
  • Social impact – assessing, how and why
  • Methodology
  • Research Design

All in all it took me a couple of hours to organise everything and update each section with a few new pieces – what a sense of satisfaction!

Big thanks to Jean for sharing this method 🙂

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EndNote: five reasons to use it to organise your academic research references

EndNote: furthering my obsession with post-it-notes

EndNote: furthering my obsession with post-it-notes

Starting my PhD

As many PhD students have done before me, I got all excited after my official PhD acceptance and signed up for a string of development courses to get me off to a good start. Luckily, I work and study at an institution that takes great pride in its staff development initiatives, so all the courses so far have been useful for at least one aspect of my work or research, or both.

EndNote: addressing my ignorance of referencing software

However, they were all blown out of the water this morning after attending a session on EndNote – which has honestly changed how I work forever. I like to think of myself as fast at picking up new software and processes quickly and am generally up to date with developments in offline and online tools related to academia. That said, I completely admit to having a big gap where my referencing tools should be. As an undergrad I had little interest in referencing, and simply laboured away in my Word documents like most of my class mates, and as an MA student, working full time, I simply didn’t feel like I had the time to invest in it.

EndNote: A whistle stop tour

What a mistake that was! It could have saved me sooooo much time. This morning two of our brilliant subject librarians showed us lots of clever ways to use EndNote to help organise our reading and make referencing/citing/bibliographies much easier and quicker. I thought, there must be plenty of people out there like me who love clever bits of software and tools but have just simply missed the boat on this for one reason or the other, so I thought I would give you a quick whistle stop tour of my Five Favourite Awesome Facts about EndNote:

It can import all my saved PDFs

I have a folder on my work computer marked Reading, into which I chuck all manner of articles, book chapters and comment pieces that I come across in PDF form, with all the intention of reading them later, saved as some string of keywords which meant a lot to me on the day but which will remain meaningless gobbledygook for ever more. In EndNote, I have selected the folder and imported it, and hey presto, the clever sod has indexed it all and populated the referencing information, as well as storing my PDFs in the library for me to view at anytime. Amazing!

It has an EndNote version of post-it-notes

I’m a sucker for a post it note – look at the new lovely owl ones I got recently as a present from my mum – beautiful! I like to use them to note down thoughts I have when reading books etc on the bus. So, I was super chuffed to see that EndNote has this function built in so I can make comments on the pdfs that are stored in my EndNote library, therefore enabling me to save all my pointless scribbles in a very orderly fashion. Yippee.

Access

I am forever realising that an article I need is either saved on my work pc when I am at home, or that I have left a useful book in my other bag, so the fact that I can save my whole pdf library in EndNote and access it from work or from home whenever I like, is a godsend.

Manual input

As my research focuses a lot on social media and online dissemination of research, a good proportion of my reading is made up of blog posts and websites, as well as traditional academic journals and books. Luckily, EndNote has the option to let me enter an item manually and populate whichever of the many reference fields I feel is appropriate, meaning I can save all these non-traditional references alongside my traditional ones, lovely.

It’s free!

As my University support EndNote, I get access to the full offline version for free, and lovely training sessions to help me use it too. From chatting to other researchers I think most UK universities tend to offer a similar perk to their students, but if yours doesn’t, then you can always have a bash at using the free web based version, although I’m not sure if it has all the same features.

Preparing for my first supervisory meeting – narrowing the focus of my PhD research

mapping my PhD thesis

mapping my PhD thesis

Finding a research focus

With my first supervisory meeting looming, this week I decided to try and start thinking of the focus my research is going to take. I had nightmares of turning up and my supervisor saying ‘well that all sounds very broad – which bit do you think you will look at?’ and me just having an inner panic and tripping over my words like a disorganised fool.

Having a flexible research plan to allow for change

Whilst this will no doubt happen anyway, I am trying to minimise the chances by having a somewhat clear plan in my head of what my research could look like. Importantly, I say could, because, as I was discussing with my mentor today, whatever I plan to focus on now, it will change and shift over the next 5 years A LOT, so having too rigid a structure will only make it more stressful and impractical.

Statistics and case studies – mixed methods research

Something I imagine my supervisor will certainly ask is how I actually plan to carry out my research. How will I collect the information that all my waffling will be based upon? When I explained my ideas around gathering some statistics about downloads and testing the results on real life case studies, (which sounded like common sense to me), my mentor helpfully explained that this would be called a mixed methods approach, and that there is a lot of research out there done in this way for me to look at and learn from. So far so good.

To get this all into context i drew the map above, which I will be taking along to me supervisory meeting to run past my PhD supervisor. Hopefully she won’t think it is complete nonsense, and will have some suggestions around how to approach it and what changes need to be made along the way.

Get in touch

I would love to hear about other people’s experiences of their first supervisory meetings or using mixed methods approaches – feel free to comment below, or tweet me @megan_beech or email at meganbeech10@gmail.com

Premature speculation

It is without a doubt, far, far too early for me to be thinking about how to structure my thesis. I don’t even start my PhD proper until January 2014. I should definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, not be thinking about how to compartmentalize things. And yet…

Because my thesis is going to be focused on looking at how to increase and monitor social impact of academic work, it makes sens e that it will feature case studies to demonstrate how this is possible. And, as I want to do different case studies for different subject areas, it also makes sense that I follow a 1 case study per chapter format, to keep things nice and tidy.

In my head, this will make for a thesis that it is made up as follows:

Introduction

Literature Review

Methodology

Case studies 1-15

Conclusion

Implications/recommendations

I’m very aware that this is a rough idea, and doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional format. That said, as my subject is so focused on creating impact, I really feel that tying it in with case studies and making practical recommendations is central to the work.

I would love to know if anyone else has used a similar structure, or if anyone has any comments about this is a proposed way of formatting my thesis?

Obviously, this will probably all change umpteen million times between now and the dreaded Viva, but hey ho!